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When children hurt, schools can help


Nobody should lose out on a good education because of a bad experience.

What happens when children witness violence? It’s more common than you think, and the effects can be devastating.

More than 1 in 4 American children have been exposed to violence, according to a recently published study from the journal Pediatrics. Researchers found that these children endured significant psychological fallout — including depression, anger, and fear.

Many kids who experience trauma act out, and the ones most likely to be punished are students of color and students with disabilities. Traumatized children are more likely to be suspended from school, and are far more likely to drop out. Teens who drop out are more likely to later abuse drugs, fall out of the workforce, and end up homeless.

Instead of punishing these kids for something beyond their control, schools should support them and find ways to help them feel safer.

Take the case of Joshua Brown (not his real name), who’d been staying with his mother and siblings at a domestic violence shelter due to an abusive father.

After he changed schools, Joshua acted out and pushed his teachers’ limits — when he wasn’t distant and withdrawn. Joshua didn’t trust adults, and his grades reflected his shaky home situation.

People had given up on him before, so Joshua kept his struggle to himself. Most people just saw a troubled kid with anger management issues.

But the story didn’t end there — his school had just completed training on trauma sensitivity. The staff recognized Joshua’s behavior for what it really was and worked with him on trust and communication. Today this child thrives, and he loves learning.

Joshua wasn’t alone in his silent struggle. It’s hard to tell how many students experience trauma because many instances of abuse and trauma go unreported.

Some schools offer special programs for children of veterans or counseling for children who have witnessed violence. However, most don’t integrate trauma-sensitive programming into their curricula.

At least not yet.

Five teachers and three students from the Compton, California school district have filed a class action lawsuit that aims to force Compton schools to better address the needs of all traumatized students. If successful, the lawsuit could pressure schools across the country to implement more sensitive policies.

Schools have the power to reach students when it matters most. Educators can treat symptoms of trauma as an integral part of the learning process. Administrators can require staff trainings to recognize trauma and develop individualized plans for each student.

Above all, children in emotional distress deserve support from professionals trained to respond to their needs so they don’t fall through the cracks. The Pediatrics study proves that child trauma is a nationwide health problem. No kid’s dreams should be deferred because of a living nightmare.


By Olivia Alperstein

Olivia Alperstein is an OtherWords Intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has worked at several legal organizations and non-profits, including Massachusetts Advocates for Children, which founded the Trauma Learning Policy Initiative www.OtherWords.org.